The New York Times features today in its ‘Room for Debate’ a few arguments concerning the effectiveness of campaign spending. One piece by Bradley A. Smith claims that ‘The Power of Political Money is Overrated’:
Spending money in political campaigns is both necessary and good. Communicating to a mass electorate is costly, and studies have shown that higher political spending increases voter knowledge of candidates and issues.
Quick nitpick before I dive in: I’m pretty sure Smith means overstated, not overrated. At least the way he states his case makes it seem like that’s what he means.
Smith is the founder of the Virginia-based think tank Center for Competitive Politics, whose main purpose is “to promote and defend First Amendment rights to free political speech, assembly, and petition.” Smith is best known for his 1996 article entitled “Faulty Assumptions and Undemocratic Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform” in the Yale Law Review, wherein he argued that campaign finance regulation exacerbated the bad effects we normally associate with Citizens United. Also, never mind that the chief complaint of campaign funding and spending isn’t that money is being spent, but rather that the candidates who accept that money are perceived as owing those who donate.
Many progressive campaigns – think of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 antiwar campaign, or the early campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt – have been funded mainly by large contributions, while others – George McGovern in 1972, or Bernie Sanders this year – have relied on small contributions.
No one is arguing that candidates can’t or shouldn’t spend money—anyone in the real world recognizes that isn’t feasible. But the model on which Sanders is running is one of the reasons he’s had such great support—he doesn’t rely on millionaires to funnel money to him through a Super PAC and instead relies on small contributions from individual donors. It’s the exact opposite of the point Smith has been arguing his entire career.
Money can be an equalizer even when it is unequal. Consider all the free media that Donald Trump receives. Because he’s colorful and controversial, the press covers his every utterance. His competitors, however, have to rely much more on paid media to reach voters.
Donald Trump receives the free press he does because he’s Donald Trump. Vermin Supreme is also colorful and controversial, but he doesn’t get the kind of media attention The Donald does. Why, since he’s arguably much more colorful, doesn’t this equalize things for Vermin? And there are certain moves Trump could have made that might very well have ended his campaign—like, for example, taking money from large corporate donors when a large part of his appeal is that he doesn’t take money from large corporate donors. It’s doubtful that if Trump were taking money from the likes of Adelson that he would have half as much support. Taking that money would not only undermine his claims to supreme self-made wealth, it would put him in the same camp as Rubio or Cruz—politicians who have to grovel for cash to support their campaigns.
But while money is critical to inform the public and give all views a hearing, this election proves once again that money can’t make voters like the views they hear. Jeb Bush is not the only lavishly funded candidate to drop out of the race – Rick Perry, Scott Walker and others also raised and spent considerable sums.
Scott Walker? Rick Perry? Walker raised about $8 million, and Perry only about $1.3 million. That is nothing compared to Jeb!, who had over $100 million in his pockets. This goes against the argument Smith is trying to advance. Neither Perry nor Walker had all that much money, and their poll numbers reflected that, hence their dropping out early. Jeb!, however, was able to stay in as long as he did and keep his head barely above the water in the polls precisely because he had so much money. And even though Jeb! still failed, all that it proves is that the people who donated to him were idiots who couldn’t read the political landscape. His massive failure is an anomaly on any chart that tracks the correlations between campaign money and success. Further, even a glance at money spent in local and state elections shows the influence of donations, now unburdened by regulation, is alive and real. That the super rich son and brother of former Presidents received very visible widespread criticism for the money he raised in his campaign for the most powerful position in the world is not evidence that unlimited donations can’t and don’t make a difference.
Americans have forgotten that prior to the 1970s, individuals could donate unlimited amounts directly to candidates, and corporations and unions were free to spend money on ads about candidates and issues with few restrictions. Today, our campaign finance system is highly regulated, yet few would say we’re fielding better candidates.
And prior to the 1970s, capital and private power were nowhere near as concentrated as it is today. And prior to the 1970s, there were more unions with more members that had far more political power than they exhibit today, and whereas corporations largely support Republicans over Democrats and unions vice versa, one of the political parties (hint: Democrats) have lost a major source of income and pillar of support, hence they, too, have fallen under the influence of large corporate power.
Call me a commie free-speech hater, but those on the right who suddenly discovered that money is speech in the wake of Citizens United never struck me as genuine, and I’ve never understood how people try to push first amendment purism when they agree to exceptions like anyone else. We all agree people shouldn’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. We all agree people shouldn’t directly incite violence. And both of those are actual speech, meaning those are words that come out of people’s mouths—the connection between money and speech is more tenuous, and even then the idea that rich entities ought to be able to contribute unlimited amounts of money to candidates for office is not in any sense an inherently undeniable truism.
The first amendment is not unmovable. There is room for nuance. We as citizens and the courts who have made rulings agree on that. Those like Smith who insist rulings such as Citizens United are philosophical first amendment issues need to remove the abstractions and look at the reality. The idea that we can’t do anything because we’d be going against principle denies that actions have consequences.